21 February 2024

Poem of the Week 2024/8

End of the Flower-World

Fear no longer for the lone gray birds
That fall beneath the world's last autumn sky,
Mourn no more the death of grass and tree.

These will be as they have ever been:
Substance of springtime; and when flower-world ends,
They will go back to earth, and wait, and be still,

Safe with the dust of birds long dead, and boughs
Turned ashes long ago, that still are straining
To leave their tombs and find the hills again,

Flourish again, mindless of the people –
The strange ones now on a leafless earth
Who seem to have no care for things in blossom.

Fear no more for trees, but mourn instead
The children of these strange, sad men: their hearts
Will hear no music but the song of death.

– Stanley Burnshaw

What is Flower-Land? When & where is it? Whatever the answer, it is ending. & it has been the subject of "our" fears & concerns, "our" meaning whomever is addressed by the poet, who opens with an imperative, & a striking word: fear. Flower-land sounds as if it should be lovely, but we're immediately told about lone gray birds – not even a flock, but lone & possibly lonely birds, & not colorful birds, but gray ones. (I once worked with a bird-watcher & I asked him about some of the little brown birds that would hang out around our tech campus. "Oh," he said, "We call those shit birds.") & these birds fall instead of fly; fall nicely reinforces autumn later in the line. But that autumn sky is the last autumn sky; is that because autumn is giving way to winter, or because autumn is going away altogether? There's a strange instability to Flower-World as presented to us.

Fear & Mourn are the key injunctions of the first stanza, & convey their mood, even as we are told we no longer need to continue fearing & mourning (so "we" must have seen the end coming for a while, & have been dreading it). The second stanza is more reassuring about Flower-World, or at least its specific elements such as grass & tree. This stanza is a little more reassuring in its clarifications: what's happening seems to be the usual giving-way of summer & harvest-time abundance to winter bareness; the flowers may be gone, but their substance remains, waiting, still, back in the earth.

But the poem turns here. Instead of assuring us, once we know that the substance of springtime is safely waiting, that therefore springtime will return on its usual schedule, we are taken deeper into the earth, into the place & time without Flower-Land. We are back in the dirt, this time with dust & ashes. The birds re-appear in the form of dust; death took them so long ago that their decay is complete. The trees re-appear in the form of their boughs, turned to ash. Ash is an interesting word here. When leaves & branches decay, they turn into dirt, not ashes; ash implies a fire – a lightning strike, perhaps, or is it from human carelessness?

We continue to get the sense that spring is delayed, or perhaps not coming at all; the dust & ashes that were birds & boughs are straining / To leave their tombs and find the hills again. Straining is such an expressive word. It makes me think of Michelangelo's unfinished Prisoner (sometimes titled Slave) sculptures, pulling out of & sinking back into the marble that traps their essence. Those sculptures were designed for the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II, & we have a tomb here too: the earth is entombing the once-living things. Earth is often seen as a womb; here it is a tomb. There is a Biblical resonance to the language here; it makes me think of the opening of Psalm 121: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Only here there is no help; the helpful Lord who manifests in the second line of the psalm is nowhere to be found in this poem. Instead there is strain, & a wish to find the hills again (perhaps their location has been forgotten, & a search must be undertaken).

The poet now makes clear why we should no longer fear for & mourn the inhabitants (bird, grass, trees) of Flower-Land: when & if they eventually emerge, they will flourish (such a rich, extravagant verb in this stripped-down, haunted poem). & here the poem turns again: the flourishing will occur mindless of the people. Until now, the only human presence in the poem has been the Poet-Speaker & "us", his audience. Now there are other inhabitants. Mindless is another interesting word here: it lets us know that the re-emergence of Flower-Land, if it happens, will depend on forces outside of human control; mindless also casts its penumbra of meanings over the people who have suddenly appeared: we associate them with a mindless existence.

These people are strange: not only odd or unusual, but alienated, uprooted: strangers there on the leafless earth, careless of things in blossom (blossom is the first reference in the poem to flowers, outside of the term Flower-Land, so the word takes on the power of something withheld until the poem's climax). The people seem to have no care for things in blossom: seem because who can say with certainty what is happening inside these strange, possibly hollow people. No care for: does that mean they are just uninterested in blossoming things, or that they do not tend to them in any real sense, physical as well as emotional (indicating an alienation from the natural world)? Probably both those things are in play here.

In the final stanza, fear & mourning re-appear; earlier we were told to fear & mourn no longer, but for the birds, trees, & grass: now our fear & mourning are not eliminated but redirected: strange makes a re-appearance as well, as the poem summons up again the men, this time not only strange but sad; it is not the men we mourn for, though, but their children.

What is Flower-Land? Although the poem throughout undercuts our sense of what's going on (we see no flowers; the birds & grass & trees are dying & disappearing; spring may or may not return to earth), in a way Flower-Land has been obvious all along: flowers carry great weight in poetry, signifying beauty, both simple & extravagant; renewal; color; love, both spiritual & sexual. Flowers are how plants seduce & reproduce. All these wonderful qualities, implicit in the term Flower-Land, have been removed from the world of this poem (this is probably why we see the strange, sad men, & are told they have children, but no mention is made of the women who would have to give birth to those children; even mentioning the mothers would bring in a world of sexuality & maternal care that is pointedly alien to the world being shown here).

The second line of the last stanza breaks after heart: a heart-break. It is the first mention we've had of an interior life. & the final line gives us the first sounds in this hitherto silent world: music & song enter, but the music is in the negative context of hearing none (no bird song!) except for the song of death, & death is the note that ends this poem.

It's difficult to read this poem now & not see it in the light of the increasingly urgent problem of climate change created by humanity: this is our world, a world in which birds & other species are dying off at an accelerated rate, in which whole forests of boughs are reduced to ash by wildfires, in which a leafless world with only ugly, death-filled noise is a real possibility. But this poem was written around a hundred years ago, in an America that was already industrializing. Its leftist author probably intended it as an attack on the capitalist corporate world, which alienates much of the population from the natural world (a world which will continue in some form, possibly one twisted & damaged by humanity, but able to continue without it). Although women were of course in the work force then, the standard image of an office drone at the time would be of a man, which helps explain what may seem the male-centered view of the ending.

This is a poem whose bleak warning has gained new resonance over time. I took the poem from the Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume 2, E.E. Cummings to May Swenson, edited by Nathaniel Mackey , Marjorie Perloff , Carolyn Kizer , John Hollander, & Robert Hass.

19 February 2024

Another Opening, Another Show: March 2024


In case you feel like getting out next month. . . .


The New Conservatory Theater Center presents Jewelle Gomez's Unpacking in P-Town, directed by Kimberly Ridgeway, in which a group of retired vaudevillians meet in 1959 for their annual summer reunion on the Cape & must face up to a changing world, & that runs from 1 to 31 March.

From 1 to 24 March, the Oakland Theater Project presents Martyna Majok's Cost of Living, directed by Emilie Whelan, the 2018 Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about several people living with disabilities.

Cal Performances presents Elevator Repair Service's performance of Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge, conceived by Greig Sargeant with Elevator Repair Service & directed by John Collins, based on the 1965 debate between the titular two, & that's at Zellerbach Playhouse from 1 - 3 March.

San Francisco Playhouse presents the spy thriller The 39 Steps, given a comic twist in an adaptation by Patrick Barlow, from John Buchan's novel & Hitchcock's movie, directed by Susi Damilano, & that runs from 7 March to 20 April. 

Berkeley Rep brings us to The Far Country by Lloyd Suh, directed by Jennifer Chang, the epic story of a man assuming a new identity in America under the baneful eye of the Chinese Exclusion Act, & that runs from 8 March to 14 April.

The UC Berkeley drama department presents The River Bride by Marisela Treviño Orta, directed by Karina Gutiérrez, about two sisters in the Amazon who struggle with life & each other, from 14 to 17 March at the Durham Studio Theater in Dwinelle Hall.

The African-American Shakespeare Company presents Dominique Morisseau's Pipeline, exploring the troubles of a young Black man with the school & justice systems, directed by Nataki Garrett, & that's 15 - 31 March at the Taube Atrium Theater.

Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage launches its new season with A Midsummer Night's Dream, starting 16 March & running through 14 April.

Theater Rhinoceros offers the world premiere of The Pride of Lions by Roger Q Mason, directed by Ely Sonny Orquiza, telling the story of the first night in jail for the five female impersonators arrested for indecency after performing in Mae West's The Pleasure Man in 1928, & that runs from 28 March to 21 April.


City Arts & Lectures presents Angela Davis in conversation with Hilton Als, in a benefit for Marcus Books, on 20 March; tickets include a copy of her new book, Abolition, Politics, Practices, Promises (Vol I).

City Arts & Lectures presents Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City & Poverty, By America, in conversation with Bernice Yeung on 27 March.


West Edge Opera's Snapshot series, featuring excerpts of operas-in-progress, will take place this year on 2 March at the Hillside Club in Berkeley & 3 March at the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco; this year's scenes are from: Nu Nah-Hup, reimagining the Agai-Dika/Lemhi-Shoshone woman best known to us as Sacajawea of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (composers Hovia Edwards & Justin Ralls, librettist Rose Ann Abrahamson); Least of My Children, exploring a Catholic family's experience of AIDS when it was new (composer Loren Linnard, librettist Donald Briggs); Madame Theremin, based on the life of Black ballet dancer Lavinia Williams, who was married to electronic music master Leon Theremin (composer Kennedy Verrett, librettist George Kopp); & The Road to Wellville, based on TC Boyle's novel about John Harvey Kellog & his fellow healthnauts (composer Matt Boehler, librettist Tony Asaro).

Rossini's La Cenerentola receives the Pocket Opera treatment (with direction by Bethanie Baeyen & musical direction by Paul Dab) on 25 February at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 3 March at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, & 10 March at the Hillside Club in Berkeley.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Proving Up, with music by Missy Mazzoli to a libretto by Royce Vavrek, adapted from a short story by Karen Russell about Nebraska homesteaders in the 1870s, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer & conducted by Steven Osgood, on 8 & 9 March.

See also Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle at the San Francisco Symphony under Orchestral.


Sacred & Profane presents Escape: Music to be Transported By, a program including music by William Byrd, Frank Martin, Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber, Caroline Shaw, & Karin Rehnqvist, & that's 2 March at Saint Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley & 3 March at Saint Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco.

The California Bach Society gives us Voices of Ukraine & Estonia: "In solidarity with the people of Ukraine, we celebrate their rich musical heritage with a program featuring Baroque and contemporary choral works from Ukraine and Estonia, including works by Urmas Sisask, Anna Gavrilets, and Arvo Pärt", & that's 1 March at Saint Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, 2 March at All Saints' Episcopal in Palo Alto, & 3 March at Saint Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley.

On 16 March at First Congregational in Berkeley, Chora Nova, led by guest conductor Derek Tam, will perform Maurice Duruflé's Requiem, César Franck's Psaume 150, Rossini's O salutaris hostia, Messiaen's O sacrum convivium, Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine, & Duruflé's Ubi Caritas & his Tu Es Petrus from Quatre Motets.

The Yale Spizzwinks(?) [sic], an a cappella group of Yale undergrads, will perform unspecified but no doubt fun & lively repertory at Old First Concerts on 15 March.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo appear at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on 15 - 16 March.

Chanticleer gives us Breathe together, Sing together, a program rather vaguely described on their site as "an evening of meditation & mindfulness" which will include "prayerful Gregorian and Buddhist chant, meditative Renaissance polyphony, and soothing contemporary compositions" & you can be soothed on 21 March at Saint Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley, 22 March at Mission Santa Clara, 23 March at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, & 24 March at Saint John's Lutheran in Sacramento.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus performs Orff's Carmina Burana on 23 March in Davies Hall.

The Conspiracy of Venus, directed by Joyce McBride, will perform new arrangements by McBride of popular songs on 23 March at Old First Concerts.


The second concert in this years Schwabacher Recital Series will take place at the Taube Atrium Theater on 6 March & features sopranos Arianna Rodriguez & Olivia Smith, mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, bass-baritone Jongwon Han, & pianist Yang Lin in a program of songs in English, German, Russian, Spanish, French & Korean, chosen by tenor Nicholas Phan.

On 7 March at Zellerbach Playhouse, Cal Performances presents Nathalie Joachim, composer, flutist, & singer, in Ki moun ou ye (Who are you?), a staged song cycle exploring her Haitian heritage.

Mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska & pianist Howard Watkins will perform pieces by Schubert, Schumann, & Debussy for Cal Performances in Hertz Hall on 10 March.

Cal Performances presents tenor Mark Padmore & pianist Mitsuko Uchida performing Schubert’s Winterreise in Hertz Hall on 17 March.

On 21 March in Herbst Theater, San Francisco Performances presents tenor Ilker Arcayürek with pianist Simon Lepper in an all-Schubert program.

The SF Jazz Center presents superstar Brazilian songwriter / singer Caetano Veloso at the Paramount Theater in Oakland on 29 March.


On 1 - 3 March at Davies Hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the San Francisco Symphony in an intriguing double bill: Scriabin's Prometheus, The Poem of Fire, with piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, followed by Bartók's Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, with mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung & baritone Gerald Finley – & here comes the caveat: the Scriabin is a special all-senses experience & will include a perfume, devised for the occasion by Cartier perfumer Mathilde Laurent, pumped into the hall. On the one hand, I salute the attempt to vary the standard concert format. On the other hand, a hand which is clutching a handkerchief & a handful of allergy pills, I very much do not like scented products forced on me. I don't even buy laundry detergent that's scented. I've had more than one concert ruined by trying to breathe next to some aging patron dowsed in a cloud of flowery scent, intended to hide the stench of decay; sometimes the scent is intended to mask the lingering stench of tobacco, rendering the person's aroma doubly offensive. So if you have allergies/asthma/a dislike of perfumes, proceed at your own risk.

On 14 - 16 March, Salonen will be back leading the SF Symphony in an all-Sibelius, & presumably scent-free, except for the occasional doddering dowager, concert, including Finlandia, the Violin Concerto with soloist Lisa Batiashvili, & the Symphony #1.

One Found Sound gives us Waveform, a program including the world premiere of Sam Wu's Hydrosphere, Ruth Gipps's Seascape, & the Beethoven 3, the Eroica, on 2 March at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco.

On 2 March at Herbst Theater, Jessica Bejarano leads the San Francisco Philharmonic in Rossini's Overture to The Barber of Seville, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Khachaturian's Waltz from Masquerade Suite, & the Tchaikovsky 2.

Daniel Hope leads the New Century Chamber Orchestra in Playing with Structure, a program which includes Gluck's Dance of the Furies from Orfeo ed Euridice, Bloch's Prayer from Jewish Life, #1, Haydn's Cello Concerto #1 in C major (with soloist Sterling Elliott), Mozart's Six Contredanses, & Stravinsky's Suite Italienne (adapted from the ballet Pulcinella & arranged for solo violin and strings by Adrian Williams), & that's 8 - 9 March at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco & 10 March at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford; there is also a free open rehearsal on 6 March, in the morning, at the Wilsey Education Studio at the Veterans Building in Civic Center; contact tickets@ncco.org if you'd like to attend.

On 9 March at Herbst Theater, The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band presents Heart of the Golden West: A Celebration of Music from and about San Francisco, a program including the world premiere of Cobra by Mattea Williams & the San Francisco premiere of Awakening by Roger Zare, as well as San Francisco Suite – Mauve Decade by Ferde Grofé (arranged by Kevin Tam), Suite Francaise by Darius Milhaud (arranged by Higgins), A Tribute to Dave Brubeck by Patrick Roszell, Flower of Youth by Roger Nixon, Shoonthree by Henry Cowell, Dawn of Freedom by Nancy Bloomer Deussen, Short Ride on a Fast Machine by John Adams, Friml Favorites by Rudolf Friml (compiled by Grofé, arranged by Leidzén), Linus and Lucy by Vince Guaraldi (arranged by Clark), Panama-Pacific Expo March by Al Pinard (arranged by Philip Orem), & San Fran Pan American by Joel P. Corin (arranged by Philip Orem).

On 10 March at Davies Hall, Brad Hogarth leads the San Francisco Symphony Brass in Presto Barbaro from Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront by Leonard Bernstein (arranged by Erikson), Ottoni by Magnus Lindberg, Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens by Maurice Duruflé, A Moorside Suite by Holst (arranged by Welcomer), Variations on a Theme by Paganini by Lutosławski (arranged by Harvey), Chicago Skyline by Shulamit Ran, & Concert Music for Brass, Percussion, and Timpani by Timothy Higgins.

David Milnes leads the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in Poulenc's Organ Concerto (with soloist Joseph Tak Maga), Chausson's Poème, (with violin soloist Shalini Namuduri), & Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique at Hertz Hall on 15 & 16 March.

Donato Cabrera leads the California Symphony in Richard Strauss's Serenade, Lou Harrison's Concerto for Violin with Five Percussionists (with concertmaster Jennifer Cho as featured soloist), & Mozart's Serenade #10 (Gran Partita), at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek on 16 - 17 March.

On Saint Patrick's Day, 17 March, at the Chabot College Performing Arts Center in Hayward, Jung-Ho Pak leads the Bay Philharmonic in a Celtic Celebration, featuring Irish & Scottish music & dance, with Annie Dupre (vocals / violin), Caroline McCaskey (Scottish fiddler), the Irish band Culann’s Hounds, the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers, Todd Denman (Irish Uilleann Pipes), the Kennelly School of Irish Dance, Bill Wolaver (piano / arranger), & the Dunsmuir Scottish Dancers.

Daniel Stewart conducts the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra in Fingal's Cave (The Hebrides Overture) by Mendelssohn, the Violin Concerto by Alexander Glazunov (with soloist Hiro Yoshimura), Fratres by Arvo Pärt, & Daphnis et Chloé, Suite #2 by Ravel, on 17 March at Davies Hall.

On 17 March at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, Urs Leonhardt Steiner leads the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra & Chorus in ¡Las Voces de México!, a program including the world premiere of Indigenous Symphony by Carlos Pazos, Copland’s El Salón México, Moncayo’s Huapango, danzones from the Anthony Blea Afro Cuban Sextet & a Mariachi Sing-Along.

Glass Marcano leads the Oakland Symphony in the American premiere of Johanna Doderer's Ritus, Barber's Violin Concerto with soloist Amaryn Olmeda, & the Tchaikovsky 4 at the Paramount Theater on 22 March.

On 23 March at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, Joseph Young leads the Berkeley Symphony in Literary Soundscapes, a program consisting of the west coast premiere of Joel Puckett's There Was a Child Went Forth, a Whitman setting featuring tenor Nicholas Phan, Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, & Laura Karpman's Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, Part 1 & Part 3, a Langston Hughes setting featuring jazz singer Clairdee, soprano Arianna Rodriguez, & mezzo-soprano Olivia Johnson.

Cal Performances presents Mitsuko Uchida leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (José Maria Blumenschein, concertmaster and leader) from her piano in two Mozart piano concertos, #17 in G major & #22 in E-flat major, as well as an arrangement for chamber orchestra of Jörg Widmann's String Quartet #2, in Zellerbach Hall on 24 March.

On 30 March, guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, with assistant conductor Chih-Yao Chang, leads the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra in Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2 (with soloist Parker van Ostrand), Unsuk Chin's Subito Con Forza, & the Schumann 4.

Chamber Music

The San Francisco Performances Saturday Morning lecture series in Herbst Theater with music historian Robert Greenberg & the Alexander String Quartet continues to explore Music as a Mirror of Our World: The String Quartet from 1905 to 1946 with two concerts this month: on 2 March, one on the United States, featuring Walter Piston's String Quartet #1 & Samuel Barber's String Quartet in B Minor, Opus 11, & on 23 March, one on Austria, featuring Zemlinsky's String Quartet #4, Opus 25 & Korngold's String Quartet #3 in D Major, Opus 34.

On 3 March at Herbst Theater, Chamber Music San Francisco presents the Esmé String Quartet & pianist Yekwon Sunwoo performing Haydn's String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 33 #2, Debussy's String Quartet in G minor, Opus 10, & the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Opus 34.

On 5 March at Herbst Theater, San Francisco Performances presents the Castalian String Quartet & pianist Stephen Hough, performing Hough's String Quartet #1 along with Haydn's String Quartet in A Major, Opus 20, #6 & the Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Opus 34.

Cal Performances presents the Isidore String Quartet playing the Haydn String Quartet in C major, Opus 20, #2, the Billy Childs String Quartet #2, Awakening, & the Beethoven String Quartet #15 in A minor, Opus 132, at First Congregational on 5 March.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music faculty members Jennifer Culp (cellist), Julio Elizalde (pianist), & Simon James (violinist) will be joined by some of their students at SFCM's Chamber Music Tuesday on 5 March to perform the Franck Piano Quintet in F Minor & the Fauré Piano Quartet in C Minor.

The Wooden Fish Ensemble (Terrie Baune, violin; Thalia Moore, cello; & Thomas Schultz, piano) celebrates International Women’s Day on 10 March at Old First Concerts by performing the world premiere of Hyo-shin Na's Many Paradises for violin, cello, and piano, Galina Ustvolskaya's Duet for violin and piano, Ruth Crawford's Piano Study in Mixed Accents for piano solo, & selected Romances by Clara Schumann  from Opus 11 & Opus 21 for solo piano.

On 12 March at the Berkeley City Club, Berkeley Chamber Performances presents the Zodiac Trio (Kliment Krylovskiy, clarinet; Vanessa Mollard, violin; Riko Higuma, piano) in American Stories, which will include Gershwin's An American in Paris (arranged by Higuma), the late Peter Schickele's Serenade for Three, Piazzolla's Angel Series, David Baker's Clarinet Sonata, & Arturo Marquez's Danzon #2.

On 24 March at Herbst Theater, Chamber Music San Francisco presents the American debut of the Boccherini Trio (violinist Suyeon Kang, violist Vicki Powell, & cellist Paolo Bonomini); they will perform Beethoven's Trio in C minor, Opus 9 #3, Dohnányi's Serenade in C Major, Opus 10, & Mozart's Divertimento in E-flat Major.


Cal Performances presents pianist Conrad Tao at Hertz Hall on 3 March, when he will perform works inspired by fairy tales & poetry, by Brahms (Six Pieces for Piano, Opus 118), David Fulmer (I have loved a stream and a shadow (With glitter of sun-rays, Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back to heaven…)), Todd Moellenberg (Leg of Lamb (after Bernadette Mayer)), Rebecca Saunders (Mirror, mirror on the wall), & Ravel (Gaspard de la nuit).

Old First Concerts presents a Chopin Birthday Party with pianist Robert Schwartz on 3 March, when he will perform the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, the Impromptu in A-flat major, the Impromptu in F-sharp major, the Scherzo in E major, the Nocturne in B major, the Mazurka in A minor, the Mazurka in A-flat major, the Mazurka in F-sharp minor, & the Ballade in F minor (the music will be followed by a reception with champagne & birthday cake).

The San Francisco Symphony presents violinist Alexandra Conunova with pianist Tamila Salimdjanova, performing Mozart's Adagio in E major, Grieg's Violin Sonata #3 in C minor, Saint-Saëns's Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, & Franz Waxman's Carmen Fantasie, on 6 March at Davies Hall.

Chamber Music San Francisco presents pianist Rafal Blechacz on 10 March at Herbst Theater, where he will perform Mozart's Sonata in A Major, Debussy's Suite Bergamasque, Szymanowski's Variations, & Chopin's Polonaise Fantasy, his Nocturne, Opus 55 #1, & his Mazurkas, Opus 6.

Pianist Jonathan Biss continues his Echoes of Schubert series for San Francisco Performances on 14 March at Herbst Theater, when he will play a new work by Alvin Singleton along with Schubert's Impromptu in A Flat Major, #2 & his Sonata in A Major.

The San Francisco Symphony presents violinist Ray Chen with pianist Julio Elizalde at Davies Hall on 24 March, where they will play Tartini's Devil's Trill (as arranged by Kreisler), Beethoven's Violin Sonata #7 in C minor, Opus 30, #2, Bach's Partita #3 in E major, Antonio Bazzini's La Ronde des Lutins, Dvořák's Slavonic Dance #2 in E minor (as arranged by Kreisler), & Chick Corea's Spain (as arranged by Elizalde & Chen).

Early / Baroque Music

The San Francisco Early Music Society presents two concerts this month: on 1 March at First Congregational in Berkeley, you can hear La Morra in Shaping the Invisible: Italian Music from the Time of Leonardo, "including pieces by Francesco Canova da Milano, Don Michele Pesenti, and even a piece by Giovanni de’ Medici – or, as he was better known, Pope Leo X!"; & Ciaramella will explore "dance music from the courts of Savoy and Burgundy to the streets of Bergamo" on 22 March at First Presbyterian in Palo Alto, 23 March at First Congregational in Berkeley, & 24 March at Saint Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco.

Valérie Sainte-Agathe leads the San Francisco Girls Chorus in Vivaldi's Juditha Triumphans, in a new edition arranged by Adam Cockerham, with stage direction by Celine Ricci of Ars Minerva, on 9 & 10 March at Z Space in San Francisco.

Jeffrey Thomas leads the American Bach Soloists in Bach's Saint John Passion, with soloists Matthew Hill (tenor), Mischa Bouvier (bass-baritone), Hélène Brunet (soprano), Ágnes Vojtkó (mezzo-soprano), Steven Brennfleck (tenor), Jesse Blumberg (baritone), on 8 March at Saint Stephen's in Belvedere, 9 March at Saint Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley, 10 March at Saint Mark's Lutheran, & 11 March at Davis Community Church in Davis.

Voices of Music presents concertos by Bach & Vivaldi on 8 March at First United Methodist in Palo Alto, 9 March at Saint Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, & 10 March at First Congregational in Berkeley.

The Junior Bach Festival will give concerts in venues throughout the Bay Area from 15 to 24 March; check here for dates at specific venues (I don't see a list of pieces to be performed).

On 21 March (Bach's 339th birthday) at First Congregational in Berkeley, Nicholas McGegan will lead the Cantata Collective & soloists Nola Richardson (soprano), Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (countertenor), Thomas Cooley (tenor), & Harrison Hintzsche (bass), & solo violinists Katherine Kyme & Lisa Weiss, in Bach's Easter Oratorio, his Concerto for 2 Violins & Strings, & his Magnificat.

Modern / Contemporary Music

The Kronos Quartet continues its fiftieth-year anniversary celebration at Zellerbach Hall for Cal Performances on 2 March, where they will play two world premieres (both Cal Perf co-commissions) by Michael Gordon & Peni Candra Rini.

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble will present Butterflies, Moons, and Mirrors: A Saariaho Celebration, featuring the late composer's Sept Papillons, her Oi Kuu, her Mirrors, & her Dolce Tormento, along with Kay Rhie's Three Miniatures for Solo Piano, Prokofiev's Flute Sonata in D Major, Opus 94, & the world premiere of Monica Chew's What comes before; the pieces will be played by Allegra Chapman on piano, Leighton Fong on cello, & Stacey Pelinka on flute, & you can hear them on 2 March at the Berkeley Piano Club & 3 March at Noe Valley Ministry.

The annual Hot Air Music Festival, "a student-led celebration of contemporary and expansive classical music from the last 50 years", will take place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on 3 March; the program has not yet been announced, but you can check here for updates.

Cal Performances presents Wild Up, conducted by Christopher Rountree, in Julius Eastman’s Femenine at Zellerbach Playhouse on 9 March (check here for Lisa Hirsch's review of Wild Up's recent Eastman concerts at Bing Hall at Stanford).

On 11 March at the Center for New Music, Dan Flanagan will present The Bow and the Brush, part of his project of commissioning & composing music inspired by paintings & sculptures; this program will include music by Flanagan as well as Libby Larsen, Nathaniel Stookey, Cindy Cox, Edmund Campion, Peter Josheff, Jose Gonzalez Granero, Evan Price, Shinji Eshima, & Jacques Desjardins; each piece will be performed with a projection of the art that inspired it.

Tuple (bassoonists Rachael Elliott & Lynn Hileman) will present Mappa Mundi at the Center for New Music on 15 March, a program featuring two new pieces – Les Blindes by JP Dreblow & Earth by Jessie Cox, as well as works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Dan Becker, Julius Eastman, & others.

At Old First Concerts on 18 March, Earplay presents Life Cycle, a program featuring the world premiere of a new work by Chris Castro, the American premiere of Haris Kittos's Dyades, the west coast premieres of Koh Cheng Jin's Flower Mantis & Toshio Hosokawa's Threnody, & Erik Ulman's Skamandros.

Other Minds presents a Dennis Russell Davies 80th Birthday Keyboard Benefit Concert on 22 March at McCarthy Art Studio in San Francisco's Mission District; Maki Namekawa & Davies will perform solo & four-hand piano music by Ravel, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, John Cage, & selections from Smetana’s Má vlast (My Fatherland) arranged for two pianos.

On 28 March at the Curran Theater, all-around artist Laurie Anderson will perform material old & new in Let X = X.

See also West Edge Opera's Snapshot program under Operatic.

Jazz & Klezmer

Branford Marsalis & his quartet (pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Reevis, & drummer Justin Faulkner) play the SF Jazz Center from 29 February to 3 March.

Cosa Nostra Strings play the SF Jazz Center on 1 March.

The San Francisco Symphony will celebrate Purim on 4 March at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco with their klezmer quartet, featuring violinist David Chernyavsky, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Rob Reich on accordion, & Daniel Fabricant on bass.

OKAN, an Afro-Cuban / Latin jazz ensemble led by vocalist & violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez & percussionist Magdelys Savigne, plays Zellerbach Playhouse for Cal Performances on 8 March.

On 9 - 10 March at the SF Jazz Center, Brandee Younger pays tribute to Alice Coltrane; joining Younger are the other members of her quartet (keyboardist Marc Cary, bassist Rashaan Carter, & percussionist Makaya McCraven), along with special guests: saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, fluntist Nicole Mitchell, & a string ensemble conducted by De'Sean Jones.

The Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, Resident Artists at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, will be led by Erik Jekabson & joined by guest vocalist Jamie Zee on 10 March.

At the SF Jazz Center on 28 March, trombonist / vocalist Natalie Cressman &  Brazilian guitarist / singer Ian Faquini will perform music from their forthcoming album, their 2022 release Auburn Whisper, & what are described as "other favorites".

The Orrin Evans Trio (Evans on piano, Robert Hurst on bass, & Mark Whitfield Junior on drums) plays the SF Jazz Center on 29 March.

Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane will be in residence at the SF Jazz Center at the end of the month: he opens on 28 March with the other members of his Trio, taken from his Cosmic Music project (Gadi Lehavi on keyboards & Elé Howell on drums) along with the other members of his acoustic quartet (now named Coltraxx: David Virelles on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass, & Johnathan Blake on drums); on 29 March, he is joined by the other members of Coltraxx, with special guests Joe Lovano (on tenor and soprano saxophone) & Tomoki Sanders (on tenor saxophone) to pay tribute to the late Pharoah Sanders; on 30 - 31 March, along with special guests to be announced, he will explore the music of his celebrated parents, John & Alice Coltrane.

The Ethan Iverson Trio (Iverson on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums) plays the SF Jazz Center on 30 - 31 March.


San Francisco Ballet presents A Midsummer Night's Dream (choreography by Balanchine, music by Mendelssohn), from 12 to 23 March.

The Oakland Ballet Company presents the Dancing Moons Festival 2024, featuring Layer Upon Layer by Caili Quan, Ballet des Porcelaines or The Teapot Prince by Phil Chan (original 1739; reimagined 2021), & highlights of Exquisite Corpse by Elaine Kudo, Seyong Kim, and Phil Chan, along with excepts from the Oakland Ballet Angel Island Project, a work-in-progress based on Huang Ruo’s composition, Angel Island, which was inspired by the poems carved by detainees into the walls of the west coast immigration station; you can see the festival at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center from 14 - 16 March & at the ODC Theater in San Francisco on 5 - 6 April.

Cal Performances presents the Joffrey Ballet in Anna Karenina, with choreography by Yuri Possokhov to an original score by Ilya Demutsky, performed by the Berkeley Symphony under Scott Speck, & that's at Zellerbach Hall on 15 - 17 March.

On 16 March at Herbst Theater, San Francisco Performances presents the Calder Quartet in collaboration with deaf choreographer Antoine Hunter & his Urban Jazz Dance Company, who will express "his experience in a hearing world through dance" in a program titled The Mind’s Ear: Motion Beyond Silence, with music by John Cage (Quartet in 4 Parts), Beethoven (String Quartet Opus130 with Grosse Fuge), Jessie Montgomery (Strum), Caroline Shaw (Entr’acte), & Julius Eastman (Joy Boy).

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company presents the world premiere of Unstill Life, a collaborative evening-length creation by Jenkins, Rinde Eckert, Risa Jaroslow, Jon Kinzel, & Vicky Shick, at the Dresher Ensemble Studio in Oakland on 21 - 24 March.

ODC/Dance returns to the Yerba Buena Center for Dance Downtown; Program A will feature Brenda Way's A Brief History of Up and Down, Kimi Okada's Inkwell (both of these are premieres), & KT Nelson's Dead Reckoning, & that's on 27, 29, & 31 March; Program B features Sonya Delwaide's goutte par goutte (in its premiere performance), Brenda Way's Collision, Collapse and a Coda, & KT Nelson's Dead Reckoning, & that's on 28 & 30 March.

Art Means Painting

SFMOMA opens New Work: Mary Lovelace O’Neal on 16 March, running through 20 October; the artist will appear in conversation with Eungie Joo on 21 March.

Two new exhibits are opening at the de Young this month: starting 16 March, you can see Contemporary Painting in Papua New Guinea: Mathias Kauage and His Family; also starting 16 March, you can see Irving Penn, a retrospective of the celebrated photographer's long career.

Unruly Navigations, exploring "the urgent, disorderly, rebellious, and nonlinear movements of people, cultures, ideas, religions, and aesthetics that define diaspora", opens at MOAD on 27 March & runs through 1 September.


BAM/PFA launches its spring film series this month: Edward Yang’s Taipei Stories, exploring the great Taiwanese filmmaker's works, starts 1 March & runs through 20 April; Tell No Lies: Decolonizing Cinema in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, featuring works about the revolutionary & liberation struggles of the former Portuguese colonies in Africa, starts 2 March & runs through 24 April; Sembène 100, celebrating the centennial of the great Senegalese filmmaker, starts 3 March & runs through 21 April; In Focus: The Fatal Alliance—A Century of War on Film, a lecture / screening series featuring film historian David Thomson, based on his latest book, The Fatal Alliance: A Century of War on Film, starts 6 March & runs through 27 March; Barry Jenkins Presents The Underground Railroad, for which the filmmaker will be there in person to present his adaptation of Colson Whitehead's acclaimed novel The Underground Railroad, runs 15 - 17 March; Nicolás Pereda Selects: Recent Films from Mexico runs from 20 March through 2 May; Viva Varda!, which is also the title of a new documentary by Pierre-Henri Gibert that launches the series, includes highlights from the filmography of the great Agnès Varda, & that launches 23 March & runs through 5 May, & let me say that one of the very best blind-buys I ever made was the Criterion box set of her complete films.

At the Curran Theater on 7 March, as part of their Unscripted series, William H Macy will introduce Fargo, with an audience Q&A after the film.

Carol Reed's greatly celebrated film The Third Man, with Orson Welles & Joseph Cotten, comes to the Roxie in San Francisco on 15 & 18 March.

On 25 March at the Roxie in San Francisco, you can see Anna May Wong in E A Dupont's Piccadilly, with a scenario by the novelist Arnold Bennett (if you haven't read The Old Wives' Tale, I recommend it highly); there will also be an intro, book talk & signing with Katie Gee Salisbury, author of Not Your China Doll, a new biography of Wong (copies of the book will be available to purchase).

Museum Monday 2024/8


detail of a wine cup in the shape of a turban gourd, now at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; the inscription in Persian reads "Drink at the order of God"

14 February 2024

Poem of the Week 2024/7

The Bean Eaters

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
    is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
    tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

– Gwendolyn Brooks

Today is Saint Valentine's Day, so here is an exquisite love poem, but it's also Ash Wednesday, so here's a reflective & even melancholy poem.

Brooks defines her old Black couple – "this old yellow pair"; yellow in this context means a light-skinned Black person of mixed race descent – as bean eaters. Why? Beans are wholesome, filling, & inexpensive fare; inexpensive is the key word here. Nothing is fancy about their meals; plain is repeated twice in the third line to describe the plates & furniture they use for eating. These two are clearly marginal, socially & economically: they are mixed race but visibly Black in a racist country, they are old in a country that has always valued youth. The beans are just one of the elements that let us know they make do with what they have: their plates are chipped, their table (not even dignified by being referred to as such) is bare wood, & it is both plain & creaking; they have no silverware, but only flatware made of cheap tin. Beans are ordinary food for ordinary people. Beans suggest food eaten by country folk, who struggle to make a living from the land (there's a possible hint here of the couple's past; perhaps, like Brooks & her family, they were Southerners who moved north to Chicago during the Great Migration). Like the beans they subsist on, this couple isn't fancy or flashy – more solid, salt-of-the-earth types, & as those terms suggest, not really noticeable or memorable. But beans power a lot of the world's people. And it's suggestive that we see our couple in the context of their daily dinner: a casual affair it may be, but it is still a social occasion, bringing these two together as part of a daily & sustaining ritual.

The second stanza reinforces the idea that these two are fairly ordinary (or ordinary-seeming) people; neither brilliant nor terribly bad, they are . . . Mostly Good. The initial caps on the phrase are slightly comic, as if the pair were being rated on some scale, celestial or bureaucratic or both. No greatness in either the good or bad directions! The caps also help lend an air of finality to the judgment; these are lives that are, in all but a technical sense, over, & this is the official assessment. This theme takes over the rest of the stanza. They have lived their day. & yet, here they are still, going through the standard motions of a life. They keep putting on their clothes (which suggests getting up & starting the day) & putting things away (which suggests cleaning up as the day ends). A day-by-day routine, of not much interest.

So far Brooks has shown us her couple from outside. In the third stanza, she moves inward. As they move through their daily routines, their lives mostly over, those lives reappear in the shifting shape of memories. & they react to these memories with both twinklings & twinges (& can your life be considered truly over if you are still reacting to your memories of the past?). Twinklings suggests happier memories, & twinges moments of regret. Again, there's nothing extreme about this Mostly Good couple: twinklings rather than joy, twinges rather than searing pain. Has age gentled down their reactions, or were they always like this? Nothing tells us, one way or the other; another bit of mystery around this seemingly mundane couple.

So far in the poem, the lines have been short & descriptive, with most lines rhyming in a pleasing but unobtrusive way, lines as plain as the couple. The third stanza also begins with short lines, but the ellipsis after the first line signals a break, to the movement inward mentioned above: first we get the mention of their remembering, then in the second line we get some of their reactions to their memories (our first sign of their interior lives), & then the third line blooms out to complete the poem. The line is not completely alien in tone to the rest; it begins with the sort of light rhyming we've been seeing (as they lean over the beans: not quite a perfect rhyme, & perhaps that little disjunction in sound is a reminder of the difference between what we're seeing outside the couple & what they are feeling inside); the line  continues with a reminder of their social & economic status (not only a rented room, but a back room).

But the line, easily the longest in the poem, then unfurls with a wonderfully eclectic list of the detritus of a life: it begins & ends with a suggestion of past frivolity & fanciness: beads & fringes. Where do they come from? from fancy old clothes that have gradually fallen apart? from broken necklaces? Is the fringe from old-fashioned furnishings, perhaps something brought up from whatever country they moved from, something filled for them, though not for anyone else, with memories of those buried back in that past? Vases: it's funny how vases accumulate. There are no flowers in these vases, but there must have been, once. Where did the vases come from? Where did the flowers go to? Why does the couple keep them? & the dolls: survivals of a childhood, & if so, their own, or perhaps that of some child of theirs now long gone? Cloths: dust cloths? dust covers? scraps saved for some thrifty purpose? Receipts & tobacco crumbs: the flotsam & jetsam of everyday life, but suggestive of a certain level of pleasure or pleasure-seeking. The items are shared between the two: we might assume that the dolls belong to the woman, & the tobacco crumbs to the man, though maybe not; maybe the dolls are from his childhood, & maybe she smoked. They are pooled together, part of a life shared for so long there is no separation between their things. The items listed are nothing special, simply the things that accumulate around us in the course of life, though enriched for the couple by their remembering. We are not given any of their memories, only this array of physical items, which their rented room is full of (the use of full here is our first indication of something other than humble surroundings for this couple, our first suggestion of abundance). The length of the list & its variety reinforce a concluding sense of abundance associated with this couple & their circumscribed lives, even though the items listed are mostly humble & everyday odds & ends, & we never find out what exactly they mean to the couple. We are told that this old pair remembers, but not what they remember. They share these things, but only with each other, not with us. We see only that they do share an intimacy. We do not share in that intimacy, but we end by seeing that it is there, a mystery & a blessing illuminating these two people who had appeared so plain & dull.

I took this from Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks; there appears to be an updated edition, which you can find here.

12 February 2024

Museum Monday 2024/7


Covered bowl with design of dragons, a porcelain piece from eighteenth-century Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China, now in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

We are now in the Year of the Dragon

07 February 2024

Shotgun Players: Babes in Ho-lland

Recently I was at a Sunday performance of Shotgun Players' world premiere production of Babes in Ho-lland by Deneen Reynolds-Knott, directed by Leigh Rondon-Davis. It is the story of two Black women students in the largely white environment of the University of Pittsburgh (the Ho-lland of the title is a joking reference to a dorm on campus) in the 1990s: Ciara (Sundiata Ayinde), a freshman from a middle-class background (her mother works in finance) living in the dorms, & Taryn (Tierra Allen), a sophomore from a less financially stable background, living off campus, who fall in love with each other. There is a third character: Kat (Ciera Eis), a sort of grunge-goth-adjacent white girl who is Ciara's roommate.

Here's the short version: the performers are fine, the play is sweet, but dull. I think I read somewhere that it would be 90 minutes without intermission. That would be stretching it a bit, but OK. Then at the theater we were told it would be two hours & ten minutes, including a ten-minute intermission. The show ended up being two & a half hours. I've seen productions of Macbeth that are shorter. Before I go into how thin the material was stretched to fill that time, I'm going to talk about my experience in the theater.

We bring our baggage into the theater with us; ideally, the play will lighten our loads in some way: make us laugh, or think, or even just forget whatever we need to forget at the moment. The last few years in particular have been difficult ones for me – & for the world at large, of course, but I'm talking about my individual situation. I won't go into the details, because it's not the kind of thing I discuss here, but I'll summarize by saying when someone I know sent me a Christmas text wishing me "merriment & brightness coming my way" my immediate & visceral reaction was, Why are you making fun of me? Then I realized he wasn't; I'm just not expecting merriment & brightness from . . . well, anything.

So I went into the theater with that, hoping I would enjoy the play. If I weren't basically an optimist I wouldn't keep going to the theater, right?

It was a mask-mandatory matinee, which leads to the first incident. I took my seat in the front row, mask firmly in place (I am very careful about observing such rules). Between allergies & medication, my throat gets dry, which leads to coughing. Since that would disrupt a performance, I carry a small bottle of water in my messenger bag. While waiting for the show to start & without thinking much of it, I took the bottle out of my bag, briefly half-undid my mask, took a quick glug, put the mask back on, & replaced the bottle in my bag. Before I could finish putting the bottle back (please note I never fully took off my mask, & replaced it before putting the bottle away – I later timed myself doing this & the whole sequence takes about two minutes, during only about half of which time my mask is partly down), I heard screeching behind me: "TAKE THAT OUTSIDE!!!!: I was facing the stage, so I turn around, & there, quivering with rage, is a short pile of unruly grey curls in a lumpy tie-dyed sweatshirt. "What are you talking about?" I said. "TAKE THAT OUTSIDE!!!! THIS IS A MASKED MATINEE!!!!" I point out to the trembling troll that I am wearing a mask (by then it was fully back on). She kept screeching. She had been sitting in almost the back row of the theater. That means she must have charged down the stairs the minute I started reaching into my bag. (If I was exuding harmful viruses, wouldn't it be safer to stay back where she was? But of course safety isn't the point.) Best of all, in order to come down to where I was in the front row, she had to pass a woman who was sitting several rows behind me, blatantly flouting the mask policy: her mask was down around her chin & she was leisurely sipping her cup of coffee. The tie-dyed troll kept screeching at me, even though I was, let me reiterate, already fully masked with my water put away, so I'm not sure what more she wanted. Finally I nodded to the maskless woman, who must have heard what was going on but just kept sitting there, & said, "Are you going to go yell at her?" "YES I AM" she said, but of course she didn't yell; she quietly mentioned that it was a masked matinee & she should take her coffee outside (which the woman did).

I guess technically I did violate the rule, though I didn't even think of it that way as I was only partially exposed for a minute or two. I didn't even think of what I was doing as "drinking", I thought of it as "preventing a coughing fit". I certainly understand the exasperation & frustration of seeing people ignore the rules. But if you're so tightly wound about masking that a momentary & partial exposure on the other side of a substantial space is going to make you lose it completely, maybe you shouldn't be sitting in a theater audience quite yet. But of course the masking wasn't the point. The point was to scream at a man (I can state this firmly, as she ignored the mask-down woman until I made a point of it, & that's a fairly typical example of how my male "privilege" works for me). I'm so used to bizarre levels of hostility from random strangers that it wasn't even until the next day that it occurred to me she could have simply said something to me, or alerted the house manager, without screaming. I think she actually did alert the house manager, as I saw her poke her head in a few minutes later & scan my row, obviously looking for the law-breaker. Since my mask was firmly back on before the troll had finished her first screech, well, I'm not sure what she thought her point was. (For the record, during the performance people around me were lowering their masks to eat cookies. I know this because the cookies were wrapped in cellophane.)

So after that random attack I'm standing there at my front row aisle seat, still waiting for the show to start (I get places early). A white-haired woman sits next to me, eyes me up & down, & announces to me that we're in the movable chairs (the other rows are basically church pews) & I could easily move my seat over & the theater wouldn't even notice. I just stared at her. I am extremely careful about respecting other people's space, a courtesy that is often not reciprocated or even recognized. Moving my chair over would in fact have partially blocked the stairs, making it difficult for people going up or down. I hadn't even sat down. I don't know what her problem was, other than my existence.

Then, during the performance, the woman directly behind me, when not talking to her companion, grunted & moaned in agreement with any "political" points, & . . . sang along with the songs. She sang along. & there were a lot of songs in this show.

So let me move on to the show, starting with the music, which the theater kept highlighting. Pop music from the 1990s means absolutely nothing to me. Given the age of most of the rest of my audience (even older than I am), I can't believe it means much to them, either: maybe their children listened to it? I didn't hate it, but I sure didn't feel I'd missed anything by not hearing it before. The music helps define the personalities of the three (Kat in particular listens to more rock-type stuff), but once that point is made . . . well, it keeps being made, & then made again (hence the extended run time; anytime action threatens to develop, on goes the CD player). Sometimes the young women dance along or lip-synch the words. I can't even remember if they actually play air guitar or if I was just plunged back into the embarrassment of watching fellow dorm-dwellers do so: after your initial grin, to show you think they're so cool, when they keep going on, what do you do but pretend to still have a reaction while your soul slips away, its place taken by crushing emptiness & boredom? At least in the theater it doesn't matter if you don't have a reaction. You can just sit back, blank-faced, basking in the stereophonic stylings of the random woman behind you singing along in her very average voice to songs you've never heard of.

Speaking of familiarity, easily the biggest reaction of the evening came when Ciara says she wants to go into journalism & be on a TV show where she can make Pat Buchanan cry. Big laughs & applause for that – this aging Berkeley audience may not know Courtney Love from a Hole in the ground, but we know & despise Pat Buchanan!

The thought of a student in the mid-1990s wanting to go into journalism made me wonder why no one did the obvious thing with this material: compress the whole thing into a first act (under an hour) & then write a second act, set in current times, updating us on these three characters. If nothing else, maybe we could find out what happens to their sense of self when the music they use to define themselves turns into oldies or "classic hits" or nostalgia.

So these two young women fall in love, & that's kind of sweet, of course. But there's really no conflict as they slide together. Ciara is the less experienced of the two, but she doesn't have much angst over falling in love with another woman – the whole "Oh my God, am I . . . that way?!?" drama, & the coming-out drama, are a bit passé on the stage, though not in life. The two women don't run up against much homophobia. Kat is cool with it, as a young woman like her would be. There is racism, but mostly of the "white people are clueless" kind rather than the overtly hostile kind. At one point, when Taryn has financial problems, Kat asks about her scholarship. Both Taryn & Ciara are immediately offended by this. I was puzzled, as Taryn's financial problems have been a running theme & it seems unsurprising that she would receive financial aid, but apparently there's a racist thing I had not even heard of, in which all Black students are assumed to have scholarships "for diversity". Is this a variant on "you're only here because of affirmative action?" But the affirmative action thing is more insulting & the scholarship assumption is more along the lines of well-meaning but clueless. This is the sort of portrayal of racism that lets the Berkeley audience off the hook – we are so much more sensitive than that young woman! It was one of several points when the woman behind me grunted & "mmmm'ed" loudly to let everyone know she totally got it. (Do I even need to clarify that this woman was white? as was most of the audience.)

Taryn is portrayed as relentlessly cool: she wants to be a social worker! She loves kids, & they love her right back! She is pals with all the service workers on campus! Her mac & cheese is fire! She goes to poetry slams! She listens to the coolest beats! She sneers at people who watch Friends! She plays a mean game of pool! Her Granddad taught her, because her family is so close! When they party, the neighbors don't complain, they party with them!

The play is weirdly reluctant to criticize or question her. But let's look at some of these things, starting with palling around with the service workers: she & Ciara have a conversation about this. Ciara says these people are just doing their jobs. Taryn gives her a little lecture (one of several she gives, meant to enlighten Ciara & presumably us) about how her Mom worked at a hotel reception desk & some guests treated her like dirt but others were courteous because they knew she could make or break their vacation (yeah, Taryn, we know; we've all seen Fight Club). Ciara has no response & clearly has been both thrown for a loop & shown the light. But there's a pretty big spectrum of behavior between treating people like dirt & being friends who have lengthy conversations with them while they're working. Sometimes respect means letting people do their jobs, or realizing that maybe they're not there to give you a rounded social life, or even that they may not like you that much.

Here's an example from years ago in my working life: I was at a job where my desk was a bit out of the way. You could get to it, but you had to go around some low cubicle dividers that kind of walled off the area. So when the man would come around to empty our wastebaskets, I would pick mine up & carry it over to him. This was mostly to be helpful but also partly because it allowed me to move from my desk. One time when I did this, he thanked me & said I was the only person who handed him the basket like that. English was not his first language, or one he spoke well, so saying that was an effort for him. I thanked him. I was glad I could do that for him & show him that sign of respect. But we never were pals, the way Taryn is with the campus crew. I didn't feel I should take up his time with chat mostly designed to show how cool I am for talking to him. (Most people would assume I was, at least financially/economically, the privileged person there. I'm not sure that's accurate. I was unable to find a full-time job & so was working one in a series of long-term temp jobs at the same company, for which I basically received no benefits, only my salary – after the temp agency had regularly skimmed a huge amount off the top, in return for nothing but issuing me a check every other week. My bosses always wanted to hire me but HR kept insisting they had a "hiring freeze". It's possible the man who picked up the trash at least had a full-time job with some benefits. I mention this to underline how ambiguous & deceptive appearances of power & status can often be, in life though not in this play.)

Another point about palling around with the service workers: for all the dramaturgical talk of "intersectionality", Taryn's lecture, as well as the rest of the play, doesn't really seem to have any comprehension of how it would actually work. To take an obvious example, a man chatting up a service worker (particularly a woman worker) is going to be read differently from another woman doing that. (I once had a conversation with a retired librarian, a woman, about killing time before shows in Civic Center. She told me that she liked to go to the children's section of the SF Public Library & read, and "you're really not supposed to be there without a child, but they don't mind if you're reading the children's books." &, not for the first time, I thought, Oh, should I tell the nice lady why she can do that & a man can't?) There will be complicated cross-currents depending on the race of the person, & the age, &, of course, personality. & in a college setting, there's an inherent barrier between the students & the service workers, no matter how much some of the students may like to pretend there isn't.

Here's another example: Taryn lives in a house off-campus. She has trouble making her rent. She tries to make up for it by making her roommates occasional dinners (as mentioned, her mac & cheese is fire!). Eventually they have a house-meeting to let her know they can't keep carrying her rent & other bills & she needs to move on. She is a bit resentful but basically understanding. But we've all known or heard about people like this –people who owe money but provide some lesser service as compensation – & generally they tend to think that what they're doing should carry full weight. But of course to those to whom money is owed, it doesn't. Taryn isn't given that flaw, of course, as she is not given flaws. But the whole "I make them dinner" thing raised questions for me: who cleans up? who pays for the ingredients? If she's paying, I'm sure the roommates are thinking, "How come you can buy all this but can't pay your bills?" If anything, the dinners would make them feel guilty & resentful, though we don't hear any inkling of that. But they're also students, & why should they pay her bills as well as their own, despite the deliciousness of her mac & cheese?

Are there class & racial considerations here? We never find out, of course. The roommates never appear & we are given no details about them, other than that they are also students. Dorm residents other than Kat also never appear (not even to complain about the loud music late at night). I understand the economics behind having very small casts (three people is actually larger than in many other new plays I've seen), but if you're concerned about presenting & respecting many voices, you can't have said voices mediated through the filter of the two or three people we actually hear from on stage.

At one point Taryn, whom Ciara has been treating when they go out, wants to reciprocate, because suddenly she has money. Ciara asks where she got it, Taryn, it turns out, has signed up for a cash-advance card (she doesn't seem to know quite what it is or how it works). This happens at the point in the evening when they have to have a fight of some sort; everything has been mostly frictionless up to now, but something has to happen to produce some tension, so Ciara starts telling her how insidious those cards are, Taryn gets offended ("my mom uses them & you're calling my mom stupid!"), & she flees. Of course they soon re-unite, & Ciara apologizes (!!!), says she could hear her mother speaking through her & regrets that (!!!!!!), & Taryn grudgingly accepts her apology because deep, deep down she is sure Ciara meant well (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Ciara, honey: Your mother is right. Cards like that are one of the predatory ways financial institutions take advantage of people who are financially ignorant (not the same thing as stupid) or desperate for income. But that issue will not be addressed here. It's downright weird that Ciara is presented as the one at fault here, & typical of both the play's reluctance to interrogate Taryn & its superficial handling of any actual social issues, which is what I meant by putting "political" in quotation marks above. (We never do find out how Taryn managed to pay off the card or whether she continued to run into debt.) I understand that this is meant to be a positive portrayal of queer Black love, & that's great, but it achieves that positive feeling by skating swiftly over any unpleasantness. You know, the same thing that happens in real life!

One feels a certain amount of pressure to love this play: Women telling women's stories! Queer joy! Black joy! Queer Black joy! (Joy is very zeitgeisty). But the pressure to offer positive stories means much of what gives our lives texture &, you know, drama is elided here. We don't even know if the two women stay together after Taryn has to drop out of college at the end of the play. Looking back on freshman / sophomore year of college from a more aged perspective, how many such relationships last, especially when one party drops out of college & moves away? The class differences between the two women aren't made much of, & neither is Taryn's greater sexual experience. In fact the relationship that rang truest to me is the one between Ciara & Kat: initially Ciara thinks Kat is cool & different, then gradually she grows disillusioned with how self-centered & ultimately conventional she is; Kat is always going on about & mooning over her boyfriend, who is of course off-stage so we never see his perspective, but apparently he's ready to move on & she can't accept that. Towards the end of the school year & the play, Kat, pretending to be drunker than she is, propositions Ciara, in one of the few really dramatic events in this show. Ciara is disgusted by this & fed up with Kat in general, so she blocks off her side of the dorm room. That's what happens in the spring: the roommate you thought was hip & interesting in the fall is a bore & a burden by spring. But I can see Kat & Ciara gradually becoming some sort of friends in the future. I'm less sure of Ciara & Taryn; the happy ending here seems more like an artificial stop so that we don't have to experience their future troubles, or even just their drifting apart under the pressures of the different directions in which their lives have taken them.

All in all, an unsatisfying evening & an unsatisfying end to a very mixed season at Shotgun Players.

Poem of the Week 2024/6

The Ivy Green

Oh, a dainty plant is the Ivy green,
That creepeth o'er ruins old!
Of right choice food are his meals I ween,
In his cell so lone & cold.
The wall must be crumbled, the stone decayed,
To pleasure his dainty whim;
& the mouldering dust that years have made
Is a merry meal for him.
    Creeping where no life is seen,
    A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Fast he stealeth on, though he wears no wings,
& a staunch old heart has he.
How closely he twineth, how tight he clings,
To his friend the huge Oak tree!
& slily he traileth along the ground
& his leaves he gently waves,
As he joyously hugs & crawleth round
The rich mould of dead men's graves.
    Creeping where grim death has been,
    A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Whole ages have fled & their works decayed,
& nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale & hearty green.
The brave old plant in its lonely days,
Shall fatten upon the past:
For the stateliest building man can raise,
Is the Ivy's food at last.
    Creeping on, where time has been,
    A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

– Charles Dickens

Ivy is terrifying stuff. Years ago when I moved into my current residence & my first Christmas rolled around, I went into my yard & cut down some of the holly-branches from the trees lining the driveway & some of the bright-green ivy twining around them. The holly & the ivy – festive, right? When the holidays passed, I tossed the holly branches into my green bin outside & put the ivy into my compost pile in the back. Months passed, & every time I turned the compost pile, while everything else in there decayed (or, as our poem would have it, in its British spelling, mouldered) into dirt, the ivy emerged as fresh & green as the day I threw it in there; the only change was that it was now bright & glossy from the moisture in the compost. Eventually I pulled it out of the compost pile & put it in the green bin for pick-up. Let the industrial composters handle it!

Dickens wrote this poem for inclusion in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Pickwick & his traveling companions are staying with their new friend Mr Wardle, a well-off country gentleman, at his place in Dingley Dell. It is a winter evening, & an elderly clergyman joins the party & recites, at their urging, this poem, which he wrote as a young man. Given the chronology of the novel, that would make the intended time of this poem sometime in the late eighteenth century, but its style hearkens back to even earlier days, to the times when ballads were the main popular form of poetry. The basic ballad beat is  there (four beat lines followed by three beat lines), the regular rhymes (ababcdcd), the refrain that ends each stanza, the archaic -eth endings to the verbs.

Not just the style but the substance of the poem evokes a by-gone time: the ruins old, with crumbling walls & decaying stone, suggest, in this English setting, one of the monastic buildings deserted after Henry VIII broke with the Roman Church, a suggestion almost sealed by the reference to a cell, the typical term for a monk's or nun's room (the cell is lone & cold, which not only reinforces the picturesque quality of the ruin but brings to mind a typical English Protestant idea of a monk's or nun's life as something unnaturally cut off from normal human sensuality & domestic happiness). The fictional creator of this poem is, as I said earlier, a clergyman, & in the late eighteenth century country clergy of the Church of England were often more noted for antiquarian research than for spiritual zealotry. That sets the stage here: a romantic view of dilapidated Gothic buildings, stately buildings gone to dust, & the graves of the people (unnamed, probably forgotten) who built them.

There's a certain morbid element at play in this view, belied by the stealthy vigor of the main protagonist, the ivy. The ivy is consistently associated with green, the color of growth, of Nature at its most robust & lively. But the plant's full strength is revealed only gradually; the first description tells us that the plant is dainty, which is not a word that connotes strength, & that it creeps (creepeth) along, a style of movement associated with lowly & humble creatures. But we soon find out that the daintiness is deceptive: it indicates not fragility but the finicky tastes of a decadent connoisseur, insisting on a certain level of decay before he will consume what's left. (This is a standard trope in poetic mentions of ivy: that a seemingly weak exterior – ivy is frequently depicted as clinging, as it is in the second stanza here – hides a crushing & persistent strength.)

The ivy is deceptive, even treacherous; creeping adds to this impression; it is a sneaky, not-straightforward way of moving. The ivy crawls, it steals along, he is sly beneath his gently waving leaves. Whim & pleasure guide his devouring. But our final impression of the ivy is of its indomitable, even admirable, vigor. The first stanza gives us the contrast between the decaying ruins & the merry meals the ivy makes of them; as noted earlier, there are suggestions of decadence in the ivy's progress over the stones of the fallen buildings. The second stanza emphasizes his tight clinging & his joyous hugs, with an almost sexual physical intensity that contrasts with grim death and the dead men's graves. We find out the ivy not only has a heart, but a staunch one. But what is this staunch heart committed to?

As we find out in the third stanza, the ivy is committed to its own being, its own creative destruction of the world. It becomes a sort of Life Force. In this stanza, we move beyond the specific, limited locale in both space & time of the first two stanzas, with their ruins & their graveyards, into a sweeping view of whole Ages (fled) & whole nations (scattered), & the civilizations that emerged in those times & places are forgotten, abandoned, decayed, or lost, while the ivy crawls endlessly on. The poet's previously ambivalent or questioning views give way to admiration in this stanza: the ivy is stout, meaning sturdy, strong, & tough; it is hale & hearty, it is brave, which suggests splendor as well as fearless. It is also, more poignantly, an old plant, facing lonely days – as if it has outlived whole civilizations & their inhabitants to carry on alone. This is where the bravery comes in: to keep on keeping on. The works of humanity die, decay, & are lost, but the endlessly regenerative force of Nature in the shape of ivy continues, covering all.

This poem combines an intense, almost morbid interest in the picturesque & the ruined, in the grotesque byways of humanity, with an almost frightening sense of ongoing growth & creativity. In this it reminds me in capsule of the works of its great creator. Today is 7 February 2024; on this date in 1812, Charles Dickens came into this world.

I took this poem from the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition of The Pickwick Papers.